SEBRING — The Highlands County Sheriff’s Office will reach out to help its staff cope with the tragic death of a deputy and help the community to remember and memorialize his death.
Sheriff Paul Blackman held a press conference Tuesday morning where he announced plans for a vigil, services and help for people who need it following the death of Deputy Sheriff William J. Gentry Jr., field training officer and former K-9 officer.
Gentry died after responding to a call that the suspect in the case, 69-year-old Joseph Edward Ables, had fatally shot a neighbor’s cat.
Blackman said Gentry knocked on Ables’ front door and Ables answered. While Gentry was in the process of checking Ables identity information, Blackman said, Ables pulled out a gun and shot him.
The trainee deputy assisting Gentry that night ran toward the house, gun drawn, and took cover, Blackman said, calling for Gentry and getting no response.
A second deputy backed her up. Shortly after that, Ables’ garage door opened, and the second deputy saw an elderly male (Ables) attempt to get inside a car and leave the area. The second deputy then took Ables into custody, Blackman said.
It was then the second deputy saw Gentry laying motionless on the lanai. After securing Ables, deputies and emergency responders rendered first aid.
Gentry was airlifted from a nearby grass airstrip to Lee Memorial Hospital. Despite treatments, he died Monday afternoon from his wounds.
With that death, Blackman said, Ables will be charged with first-degree murder.
He also faces charges of possession of a weapon by a convicted felon, tampering with evidence and violation of probation.
Whether Ables will face the death penalty remains uncertain, but Blackman said he believes that should be the case.
Authorities apparently believe that Ables shot Gentry because he didn’t want to end up going to prison. He was already on a four-year probation for battery of an elderly person in Highlands County, but had served time in prison in the early 1990s for an aggravated battery charge.
To help the community cope with the situation and to give all residents an opportunity to show support and give prayers to Gentry’s family and to all law enforcement officers, the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office will have a single, candlelight vigil for Gentry at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Firemen’s Field in Sebring.
Blackman said mental health counselors will be available as long as there is a need for deputies and other staff.
He thanked Orange County and Polk County sheriff’s offices for proving criminal incident team members to help in that regard.
He also said the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and the Fort Myers Police Department have helped a lot.
A private family visitation will be held Monday, May 14. Then, a massive funeral service for law enforcement, and the public, is scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday, May 15 at the Highlands News-Sun Center in Sebring.
Blackman said Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and other top state officials have been in contact every day.
Blackman called Deputy Sheriff Gentry a “hero on Earth.”
In the audience Tuesday, former sheriff Susan Benton said she had just dropped by to sit with Blackman, a former coworker and employee of hers.
She ended up staying for the press conference.
Afterward, Benton gave hugs to long-serving deputies, with whom she served as either a fellow deputy or sheriff.
She was a deputy when Capt. Robert Hopton and Inspector James Rodgers died in a plane crash on July 10, 1995. She vividly remembered wading through swamp to the crash site, but that was different than the pain of losing Gentry: She hired him.
“It’s like your own children when you’re the sheriff,” Benton said. “Your goal is to protect them.”
Benton said a sheriff wants to make sure deputies have every tool they need, even in grieving. Knowing one of them is gone takes days or weeks to set in, she said.
It hurts especially, Benton said, that Gentry was in the process of training a young deputy on a routine call when he got shot. Seeing something like that would have been difficult for a veteran, let alone a rookie deputy.
Deputies put their lives on the line, she said, but give more than law enforcement.
“They’re delivering hope to people,” Benton said. “Who calls the cops unless their life is out of control?”
Benton remembered Gentry as “the most jovial ‘kid’ around,” but one who didn’t shy away from difficult assignments. She said he worked for years in the toughest neighborhood in Highlands County.
“These guys go to work every day to take care of people,” Benton said, adding that Gentry’s younger brother is still reporting to work as a detective.
District 10 State Attorney Brian Haas, present for the press conference, said he was also heartbroken, as were members of his Highlands County office.
“Prosecutors loved working with (Gentry),” Haas said. “His investigations were thorough. He was a great partner for us.”
Right now, detectives and prosecutors are building the case on Ables, Haas said, and plan to take it to the grand jury in the next few weeks. Haas anticipates getting an indictment.
Currently, Ables is being held in the Highlands County Jail without bond on a violation of probation charge in connection with shooting Gentry. As a convicted felon, he was not allowed to possess a weapon.
Bond on the murder charge, as of Monday, was $2 million, as it was for the attempted murder charge. Haas expects that may change after the indictment to no bond, as well.
Either way, Haas insists, Ables won’t be going anywhere before the trial.